Salt-N-Pepa Do It Their Way

The original spice girls have a new album, a new label and, for the first time in their career, total artistic freedom

Cheryl James, Sandi Denton and Dee Dee Roper of Salt 'N Pepa on the cover of Rolling Stone
Peggy Sirota
Cheryl James, Sandi Denton and Dee Dee Roper of Salt 'N Pepa on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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Cheryl James is reclining poolside at a los Angeles hotel, talking about her late friend Tupac Shakur. "There's no telling what happened to him during that period when his mother was on crack," says James, the Salt of Salt-n-Pepa. "Who knows who was telling him, 'You piece of crap; you'll never be shit'?"

Suddenly there is an angry shout from the pool: "Mommy!" James bristles. Her 6-year-old daughter, Corin, swimming nearby, apparently heard the last sentence. "You're right, Boo," says James. "I was trying to express something, but I got carried away. A bad word is a bad word, and I made a mistake."

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Corin narrows her eyes. Finally satisfied, she dives back underwater. James leans forward in her chair. "She's like the curse police," James whispers. "She'll hear you two rooms away. I don't curse a lot, but sometimes I get so passionate." She laughs and tells a story about Salt-n-Pepa's upcoming album, Brand New: "There were a few s-h-i-t words that we said, and you know how they bleep things out in radio versions? We did it on our album. You listen to it, and just before some s-h-i-t words, you hear bloop."

James cackles. Calling the record Brand New is barely an exaggeration. After a phenomenal four straight platinum albums, Salt-n-Pepa have split with their creator, mentor and producer, Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor. James herself co-produced and co-wrote nine of the 13 songs, including the current single "R U Ready," and recorded most of the album in her home studio. After more than 10 years in the business, Salt-n-Pepafinally have complete freedom.

But that's not the half of it. The biggest difference is that James feels she is getting closer to her true calling. What she really wants is to spread the word, capital W. So on Brand New, you might still hear "Gitty Up," a patented SNP-style sexual romp, co-written by Rick James, but you'll also hear "Hold On," a hallelujah-shouting gospel song featuring Christian R&B singer Kirk Franklin.

Lounging by the pool in cutoff jeans and a bikini top, James talks about her group's new direction with almost evangelical zeal. She is supposed to be the quiet member; it is Sandi Denton (Pepa) who is the loud one, always at the center of attention. But when James speaks of her faith, she can't control herself. Her eyes grow wide; her voice booms. Salt-n-Pepa are her mountaintop, and she is shouting.

All of which has created a tiny glitch.

"I don't want to do another Salt-n-Pepa album," says James. "The only way I would want to do another Salt-n-Pepa album – and I told Pep this – is if she would respect the fact that I don't want to do any more 'Shoops'; I don't want to do any more 'Gitty Ups': 'If you can respect me just wanting to do inspirational and/or gospel music, then I would do another album.'"

And what did Pepa say?

"She was quiet," James says with a laugh. "She was basically . . . quiet."

Pepa is laughing. she is seated between her longtime friend and partner, James, and Spinderella (Dee Dee Roper), the group's DJ and surrogate kid sister. They are at a table at the posh L.A. hotel they checked into yesterday. "They had us up in the Radisson," says James. "Yo, honey, that's not gonna happen. We have been through too much. All we ask is that we fly first-class and we have a nice hotel. That's all we ask."

And so the ladies lounge in style. Tonight, SNP will attend the premiere of How to Be a Player, and in two days they are scheduled to perform on the new talk show Vibe TV. At the moment, however, they are resting. And laughing. It seems that the threesome went to a comedy club last night, and one stand-up, not even knowing that Salt-n-Pepa were in attendance, started singing "Push It." "It was, like, old school," says James. "We was like, 'We're in with the old school.' " They all bust out laughing again.

The funniest thing about "Push It," SNP's first big hit, in 1986, is that it started out as a joke. Azor came up with the synth line and, thinking it was too corny, James and Denton added the "Ooh, baby, baby" to mock it. Denton even walked out of the recording session.

But there's no making fun of it now. It made them millionaires. "Know what I'm saying?" asks Denton. And then the laughter starts all over again.

Initially, "Push It" was released as the B side of "Tramp," but when a West Coast DJ flipped the disc over, "Push It" ended up selling a million copies and helped to make the album it was on, Hot, Cool and Vicious, go platinum. Salt-n-Pepa's run began in earnest.

After the record's release, the original Spinderella, Pamela Greene, got married and quit. Azor discovered Roper, then in high school, who jumped on board and has completed the group's triangle all the way through A Salt With a Deadly Pepa (1988), Blacks' Magic (1990) and Very Necessary (1993). Now, with Brand New, Salt-n-Pepa are simultaneously old school and stars of the video age – no easy feat, considering the relatively brief life expectancy of most hip-hop careers. (Heard anything from Monie Love lately? Dream Warriors? Yo Yo? Exactly.)

"We're not just three dumb girls from the ghetto who got lucky," says James. Denton interrupts. "I see the look on people's faces as they get it," she says. "It's, 'Damn, y'all ain't no joke. Y'all are still here.' "

Not that it's been easy. This is the music industry, after all, and they are women – black women, at that. As they have persisted, they have taken firmer control of their business. It is no coincidence that many rap artists are forced to wear more hats – artist, producer, business person – than musicians in traditionally white genres just to make sure that their interests are protected.

"They're racist more than they are greedy, believe it or not," says James of record companies. "They'll sit on your record in a minute, just to make a point. We've had comments come back to us that people from companies in charge of our records say, 'We've gotta get those girls in line.' 'We're grown women who've been in this business for over 10 years. And you feel like you have to put me in line? What is it about you, when you look at me, that makes you think I have to be put in line? I am in line.' "

And then there's the current climate, not just in the rap world but in society at large. In many ways, Brand New is a reaction to the tumultuous last few years. Sure, Salt-n-Pepa are savvy enough to know they can't abandon the franchise altogether. There is "Gitty Up" and "Boy Toy" for those who want it down and dirty. But in addition to the gospel track "Hold On," there is "The Clock Is Tickin," a rock tune about domestic violence inspired, in part, by the O.J. Simpson trial. And there's "Imagine," which features Sheryl Crow (yes, you read it right) and is about confronting prejudice.

The reality is that Salt-n-Pepa see what is happening. They have lost friends. And now, as James insists, it is time to minister. They were close with both Shakur and the late Biggie Smalls, and, even in retrospect, the women are not sure that there was anything they could have done to help prevent the stars' deaths. James wrote Shakur numerous letters while he was in prison, encouraging him to turn his life over to God.

"Tupac was a young man who had a lot on his mind," says James. "He was going through this transition, and it ended up that somebody who was not the best influence for him came and got him out of jail and paid his bail."

"That's what the record companies encourage," adds Denton. "That's a meal ticket for people. I know, for Biggie, he didn't have a clue it was going to be like this. In his lyrics he was witty with it: He didn't really kill a lot of people, and this and that. He talked the talk in his music, but I know he didn't have a clue that it would get like this."

"The challenge to those who are still here, carrying on," says James, "is that if you're going to talk about that part, then what's the solution?"

And then, for a short while, no one says a word.

Singing about sex is rock & roll's oldest obsession. So, before they decided to have a message to their madness, Salt-n-Pepa were talking about sex. Which seems pretty obvious, especially if you look at the song titles. "Let's Talk About Sex" springs to mind. In fact, about the only people who don't seem convinced of this fact are Salt-n-Pepa themselves.

"It depends on your mind-set," says James when the topic is broached. "When I listen to 'Gitty Up,' I think of two people on the dance floor, dancing. It depends where your dirty little head is at."

Denton quotes from the song: "I keep it hot like a block full of hustlers/We can make it blaze like us/Bless you to death/Wanna freak me from the back?"

"Wanna freak me from the back"? Excuse me?

"'Wanna freak me from the back' means dancing, but if you have brain dirt . . ." says James. She stares. "Most men think like that," she adds. "Most men will never believe 'Push It' was never about sex."

She's right. Most men wouldn't believe that.

"And that's why the record went No. 1," says Denton. "Everybody thought it was about sex."

"But the song was about dancing," says James. "It was about pushing it on the dance floor."

So what about "Shoop"? "I wanna know, how does it hang?. . . /Come on, gimme summa that yum, yum, chocolate chip, honey dip/Can I getta scoop?" Surely that is sexual?

"But we do it in such a cute way," says Denton. "The way we say it and the way we portray it, it looks and feels so fun and clean. It doesn't feel like you're just nasty."

Sandi Denton is backstage at the television taping, leaning over a pool table, dressed in tight camouflage shorts and a T-shirt, knotted below her breasts, that reads pervert. In her cleavage is a tattoo of a scorpion; around her bellybutton are the words HOT PEPA; an Egyptian eye keeps watch from the small of her back. She runs the cue ball all the way down the rail and slams the eight ball into the corner pocket. Dee Dee Roper winces. She has just lost her third game in a row. Denton twirls the cue like it's a medieval sword.

Both Roper and Denton love games. Each owns her own bowling ball (Denton's is hot pink), but it is futile for Roper to try to outgame Denton. She might look as if she just stepped out of a Russ Meyer-style movie (Sandi Denton as, say, Urban Vixen), but in reality, she is a big kid. She has a pool table at home; she cajoles her band mates into hours of Scattegories and the children's game Steal the Bacon; she performs magic tricks.

Denton is the lone member of SNP who does not immediately retreat from her stage persona when the lights go down. Although it can't be proven, it's a safe bet that her wild hairdos over the years have much to do with the fact that there is always a cellular phone, with its accompanying static, at the side of her head. At one point during an interview, the phone rings. "That was a cute call," she says when she hangs up. "Ooh, you would die if you knew who that was." She is pressed to tell. "No way," she says. "I would be fried."

"Pep is the same on- and offscreen," says Roper. "That's just her personality."

"I'm gonna be in miniskirts at 50," agrees Denton. "Tina Turner."

The interesting thing about SNP is that unlike the majority of their contemporaries, their personas are not born of the artists' upbringing. The streets of New York's Brooklyn (James and Roper) and Queens (Denton) have never filtered into their musical image. When they are together, they listen mostly to old soul, like the O'Jays and Marvin Gaye, rather than hip-hop. Which makes sense, considering that in the R-rated universe of hip-hop, Salt-n-Pepa have always been PG-13 (adult situations, sexual content, occasional language). They sell playfulness and sexuality, never urban realism.

"It's not that I don't want to talk about it," says Roper, who grew up in the projects. "I still have family out there, and I still visit. I have great memories; I have not-so-good memories. But I'm not stuck on it."

All three women now live far from their old neighborhoods. James is on Long Island; Denton and Roper are in New Jersey. Their childhoods, however, left indelible impressions, as much for their families' staying together as for any tough financial times. For Denton, life was easiest. She was born in Jamaica, the seventh of eight kids in a strict, fairly well-off West Indian family, then moved to Queens as a young child. Education was paramount in her house. One sister is now a lawyer; another, a geologist. Other siblings own businesses.

What Roper remembers most about her childhood in the projects is music. From the age of 8, she was a dancer in the East New York Theatrical Workshop; she was the fifth of six kids, all of whom were musical. Her father (who worked for Con Edison before falling into a manhole and injuring his leg when Roper was in high school) had painted the living room red and black – it was the age of disco, after all – and his turntable featured a lighted ball that would splay patterns about the room. Childhood was toughest on James. She was the middle child, at first closer to her older brother than to her sister. But her brother began to be influenced by the streets, and the two kids could no longer relate. To make matters worse, her father, a subway conductor, was drinking.

"I love my dad now, but back then, me and my dad were bitter enemies," James says. "If we weren't having a confrontation, there wasn't much else we were saying to each other."

Finally, her brother was arrested for robbing a woman. Despite the fact that it was his first offense, he was sentenced to a juvenile facility. After that, his problems only got worse: He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and now lives in an institution.

"I gradually watched my brother deteriorate – his mind," says James, talking publicly about her brother for the first time. "There was a lot of confusion in my home – a lot of physical drama, a lot of mental drama."

James' mother, Barbara, a retired bank manager, agrees. "She had more than her share of turmoil, more than a child should," she says. "But Cheryl is very strong and willful. She's such a quiet warrior."

It is a description similar to the one that Cheryl uses when speaking of her mother, whom she considers her hero. It was Barbara James who held the family together, who helped Cheryl's father to stop drinking and gave him and his daughter the close, loving relationship they have today. It is a story made more remarkable by the fact that as a 9-year-old child, Barbara watched her own mother get gunned down by a police officer who had chased one of her siblings into their home.

"Losing her mother and then losing her firstborn to mental illness but maintaining her faith and being such a loving mom – that's the ultimate in womanhood," says James of her mother. "I watched her with my father – always fighting for his respect and fighting for her independence as a woman. That drives me to maintain my spirituality."

And that, in turn, is what rubbed off on Salt-n-Pepa.

The strength of Salt-n-Pepa has always been in the differences – the group exists somewhere in a valley between the polar personalities of Salt, Cheryl James, and Pepa, Sandi Denton.

"Sandi pulls me to the edge," says James. "She's like, 'Live, diva, live. It's OK.' And I love her for that. But then I snatch her from going over the edge. I'm like, 'Come back, honey. You're going to drown if you take one more step.' "

The pair met in 1985 at Queensborough Community College, in Queens. Denton had bleached-blond hair, safety pins in her ears and the attention of everyone on campus. James was an introvert, a self-confessedly somber, almost depressed person. Somehow they became best friends and, later, partners in the Salt-n-Pepa Corp. (Roper, as Spinderella, is an employee.)

Through it all, Denton and James have stayed the closest of friends. When Denton had her son, Tyran, James was her Lamaze coach. After the birth, James went into the hallway and cried uncontrollably.

This makes you wonder whether the group could ever suddenly end. The strength, remember, is in the differences. But sometimes these differences create problems. For one, Denton is defensive about being portrayed as just a party girl. "There is a business side to me and a spiritual side," she says. Practically speaking, the problems are small points to be laughed about between best friends. Let them grow, however, and they might just stretch Salt-n-Pepa to the breaking point.

"I'm spiritual, too, but 'Gitty Up' is a great song, know what I mean?" says Denton when the issue is raised. So what really happened when James said that she next wants to make a gospel or inspirational SNP album or no album at all? "I was very quiet when she said that," says Denton. "This is my life. I don't want to stop here. Cheryl's planning on breaking contracts and all kinds of stuff with that attitude."

James has a simple answer. "God," she says, "is bigger than contracts."

In the beginning was the word – words, actually – and the words all belonged to Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor. So did the music. Virtually everything did. Azor was even, for a short while, going to be Pepa.

"You wanna know what's real funny?" asks Azor. "The original Salt-n-Pepa was gonna be me and Martin Lawrence. He couldn't rap, so that died out. Then it became me and Cheryl. But then I said, 'Hey, it would be better if there were two girls.' I was brainstorming all the way around."

Azor and James were boyfriend and girlfriend. She was light-skinned (Salt), and he was dark-skinned (Pepa). Both worked at a Sears in College Point, Queens. Martin Lawrence worked there, too. So did Kid 'n Play. And, of course, Denton; James had gotten her the job. Soon, James and Azor came to Denton with the offer to be Pepa, and a hip-hop band was born. Calling themselves Supernature, the three released a single, "The Showstoppa," before changing their name to Salt-n-Pepa.

"I don't like to say it, but they just took direction," says Azor of the group's beginnings. "It was almost ridiculous. I had the dance steps, clothing, hair. What the hell?"

But he adds: "I knew they had it. They had what it took to do it."

An album deal followed, but things were still rough. For one, the group wasn't always comfortable with Azor's lyrics. To this day, says James, the line "If she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekends" (taken, ironically, from "None of Your Business," the only SNP song ever to win a Grammy) makes her "gag." But the main problem was that Denton and Azor had completely fallen out. According to Denton, Azor twice threatened to kick her out of SNP: once when she was late for a show, the other when she scoffed at his demand that she use her own royalty points to pay Roper's salary.

"At the time, they were a couple, and Cheryl didn't pay," says Denton. "Only I ended up paying points for this girl, for Spin. I did it. But I never let that go. Cheryl says, 'I want to give you back the money,' because she knows I took that through this whole career with me."

Azor doesn't dispute the claim: "Yeah, that's all true. But she's gotta tell you why. If I'm sitting in a parking lot, and you're late because you decided to make a detour with your boyfriend, I have a problem with that. Her boyfriend was giving her trouble, and she brought the trouble to the band. Take that shit somewhere else. So I said, 'I can replace your ass.' "

Denton stayed. What deteriorated was Azor and James' relationship. "Hurby was like a Svengali to me," says James. "We were boyfriend and girlfriend; he was my manager; he was my producer; he was my world. I was wrapped up in him. Too much. It wasn't healthy."

To make matters worse, Azor was less than faithful. After things had passed the breaking point, he had a child with another woman, and his partnership with James was over. "I knew I couldn't fix it," Azor says. "I wasn't at the point in my life where I wasn't going to not mess with every girl that caught my eye."

The year was 1990. Remarkably, the group stayed together. "How did we do that?" asks Azor. "We all had bills." He laughs. "What do you want me to tell you?" The end, however, was in sight. Salt-n-Pepa began fighting even more over creative control.

"Hurby's a talented man, but it comes to a point that you have to understand that we are talented also," says James. "He could have gotten other groups and be out there just reigning supreme if it was all about Hurby."

Finally, for 1993's Very Necessary, the two sides split the album down the middle. Azor's hit was "Whatta Man"; the women's was "Shoop," the only one of their selections that Azor liked. "All their other songs we fought over," says Azor. "I hated them."

For Brand New, Azor did not come to the table. He still receives one-third of the profits (originally, his royalties were one-half, but that changed in 1993), but he decided that, creatively, enough was enough. "I felt that if they wanted to be free, they should be free all the way," he says. "If it works, it's all yours. If it fails, it's all yours."

They have led us through some horrendous fashion periods, Salt-n-Pepa, so it seems only fair to request a tour.

"We were very confused," says Denton. "We've had so many bad ones."

"We were looking at some old pictures, and I just started cracking up," says James. "We were in tears."

"The Madonna period was pretty bad," offers Roper.

"And the trendy one where I used to wear the big hat," says James. "Oh."

"The funny glasses," says Roper.

We are clearly on a roll.

"Color contacts," yells Denton. "Asymmetrical haircuts . . . the ghetto haircuts." She laughs. "The polka dots."

James looks offended. "The polka dots were cute when they were out," she says.

"I have a feeling, in a few years we'll look back at now and laugh again," says Roper.

"I know I'll laugh at this curly red hair one day," says James. She seems to be over the polka-dot comment.

"The funny thing is," says Denton, "in a lot of those pictures, we actually look older."

James leans back in her chair: "You know what? Less is more." She nods her head thoughtfully. "That's what we learned," she says. "Less is more."

All right, I want a big diva finish," yells Cheryl James.

It is rehearsal time for tonight's Vibe TV performance, and, as usual, Salt-n-Pepa are falling into their respective roles. James, the mother, is directing; Denton, the wild aunt, is dancing across the stage even though the music has stopped; and Roper, the daughter, is off to the side, sucking her thumb.

It's a habit that Roper indulges in when she is left alone, a strange metaphor for her position in a band in which, after 10 years, she admits to still feeling like the new kid. When she first joined the group, she literally was a kid. Her parents wouldn't let her sign on. James, Denton and Azor sat down with the Ropers in order to convince them that their baby would be safe. The band hired a tutor, and, after shows, Roper would cry in her room because she had a curfew.

Today, Roper, like her two band mates, is a mother. It is her turn to worry. Her daughter, Christenese, is 4. Christenese's father is the basketball star Kenny Anderson. Having two famous parents was weighing on the young girl's self-esteem, so Roper enrolled her in karate classes to give her a sense of control. She will soon receive her first belt.

How to protect their kids is a topic that comes up repeatedly with the members of Salt-n-Pepa. All are single mothers. Roper and Anderson broke up shortly after the birth of Christenese; Denton split with the father of her son, Tyran, before the birth ("We broke up from Day One," she says. "Pregnant, gone"); James was briefly engaged to Gavin Wray, Corin's father, until Barbara James told Cheryl that she should follow her heart, not a misguided sense of duty.

"I'm glad I said that, but it was a tough decision, because I like the father," says Barbara. "It just wasn't right for her. And now the child adores her father. She gets so much love from both sides."

None of the members of SNP is currently involved in a romantic relationship. The stakes are different, they say, now that they have children. Denton, who recently (and amicably) ended a six-year relationship with Treach of Naughty by Nature, sat her son down to discuss the topic of future relationships.

"I said, 'Whoever's around has gotta love you,' " says Denton. "And he said, 'But they gotta love you, too, Mommy.' "

Intro, music, mayhem. that's how quickly the fans rip out of their seats when Salt-n-Pepa rip into "R U Ready," the first single off Brand New. One note and the TV soundstage becomes a nightclub. And why not? It's all here: the hip-hop attitude, the dancing, the pop sensibility, the slinky cocktail dresses, the energy. By the time the group unleashes its big diva finish, the fans are in heaven.

"You can't fight Salt-n-Pepa," says Denton, laughing.

"It's where the women rule, baby," answers James.

As the program fades to black, the crew surprises SNP with a cake commemorating their 10 years in the music business. Forget the slight math problem – Hot, Cool and Vicious came out in '86 – what matters is the sentiment. Salt-n-Pepa have endured.

The women wander to their dressing room to slip out of their stage personas. It has been a long day, but this is only the beginning of the push for Brand New. When it is done, they will be left with uncertainty. At one point they talked with CBS about producing and starring in their own sitcom, but that fell through. There are other possibilities.

"Our girl Roseanne has always been interested in producing a sitcom for us," says Denton. "That might happen. I don't know about Salt sometimes. She's drifting away from everything. But I'm still very interested."

More than being interested, Denton has taken small roles in the films Joe's Apartment and First Time Felon to help feel out a career switch. Granted, she is impetuous (after visiting Paris and loving the vendors selling crepes, she contacted the city of New York about operating her own cart in Manhattan), but you get the feeling that she is serious about keeping her options wide open.

Backstage, James changes into a denim dress and heads back to the hotel with her daughter. Roper and Denton plan to watch a pay-per-view boxing event tonight, but James will probably stay in. Offstage, they sometimes need to go their own ways. Certainly the making of Brand New didn't help matters.

"At a point, it felt like betrayal or abandonment," says James of her relationship with Denton during Brand New. "She'd cancel studio time. Or not show up. Or not call me. And I was working so hard. But she's a grown woman, and I have to separate from her in that way. I have to not let it affect me so . . . deeply."

Which might explain how each member of Salt-n-Pepa is treating this new album. Any record could be a band's last, but this time, it really could be the last. They are nervous, excited, a little scared to think too far down the line.

For her part, Roper has other plans. She has opened a salon, She Things, in Queens; she plans to get a license in massage therapy and open a spa, too; and she has recorded nine of the 12 tracks for a Spinderella solo album, to be released on Jireh Records, Salt-n-Pepa's label.

For Denton and James, the stakes are higher, if only because they are more firmly planted. More than a decade since they began their partnership with Azor, he has graduated to vice president of A&R at Universal, a division of MCA. "You know, God bless Hurby," says James. "We're just glad we got the opportunity to prove it's not all about Hurby. That's all we ever wanted."

They have proved their point. Salt and Pepa, the individuals, now run Salt-n-Pepa, the band. The moment is finally all theirs. They talk about how much they love each other, and when they do, it is with obvious sincerity and emotion. Whether that love will keep them together is anybody's guess. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

This story is from the October 16th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 771: October 16, 1997
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